Friday, April 16, 2010

The Equus Projects: Lessons Learned About Generosity & Listening

The Equus Projects

April 20, 2010

Lessons Learned About Generosity & Listening

As The Equus Projects dives deeper and deeper into creating hub sites for our work, we are making some very interesting discoveries about interfacing with the people who make our work possible.

The Hub Site
First, a definition of an Equus Projects Hub Site: A region of the country where there is significant interest in the work we are doing and a vested interest in having us return on an on-going basis.

Passionate Producers
In each of our hub site locations we are dealing with passionate people who want our work to have a presence in their region. Sometimes our projects begin with a big producer such as The Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts in Helena, Montana. But when we are asked to return, the people who are bringing us are often the small guys. These are not big producers or presenters. These are people who own horse farms. These are ranchers and horse owners, dancers, theatre directors, educators. They do not have a staff with PR people and professional fundraisers.

We are realizing how immensely important it is for us to fully acknowledge the generosity of those local self-appointed producers with no staff receive enormous accolades and appreciation for what they are doing.

Beyond Thank You
However just saying thank you, thank you and thank you again is not enough. There is more to understand. Let me explain by way of example.

In the Pacific Northwest our hub site supporters include a Sammamish, WA equestrian who is producing a clinic for us to teach. Not only is she offering her ranch and horses as the clinic venue but she is also creating the PR, taking registrations, and making sure we are housed and fed. This individual has a vested interest in having come to her farm. It is crucial for us to spend some time figuring out what we are offering her. How does our work feed her? Why?

Another Northwest local supporter on Vashon Island is documenting our work and creating video presentations for local cable stations. His filming of our work provides a visually captivating subject that will gain his work visibility.

We are being housed. We will be fed numerous dinners. And this is not for a just a few days. We are on Vashon Island for 14 days! We have experienced similar generosity in hub sites in Florida and Texas.

Listening to stories
In the creative excitement (and sometimes maelstrom) of making a new work in a short amount of time it is easy to get distracted, to not fully acknowledge those who are bringing you water, offering hospitality, fixing your costumes, washing your laundry. They admire your work. They ask questions about you and the work. And in some important way they are asking you to listen to their stories, learn about them.

Motivation behind generosity
Beyond expressing our gratitude we must listen carefully and take the time to understand the motivation behind generosity. For some it will be a chance to perform. For some it will be about learning. For some it will be the opportunity to teach us something they know - a chance to share their knowledge. This is about the need to be recognized. If we do not take time to give that recognition we are remiss and will have missed an opportunity to sow tons of good will.

When to say YES, even when it costs
At one of our venues, our producer - and the owner of the horses we are performing with - asked us to pay for an equestrian trainer to be present for all our rehearsals. The price tag for this was very high. I knew the request carried with it important information. This was our second project with these horses. The first had gone well but there were some equine issues not fully attended to. The unexpected price tag for a trainer carried with it important information about our commitment to the well being of her equines. I believe she was indirectly asking us to financially commit to her horses. And I knew it was not my place to question this request or attempt to negotiate. Our company manager and I launched a concerted search for funding sources. We kept the producer fully informed of our fundraising. Update: We are still waiting to hear from The Arabian Horse Foundation and several other sources. More importantly our producer recognized our commitment. Update: The owner has offered to help us with this expense.

When to say NO
In another venue the producer asked that we title our press release: Dancing with the Stars. Now this was not acceptable to me. I was willing to go to the mat about this, as Dancing with the Stars was not at all what we would be doing!! Our objections encountered lots of resistance. I questioned how far the gratitude needed to be stretched. I worried that we were offending in sticking to our guns. But I also felt this was a necessary battle to fight.

Sharing Ownership of the Work
We are learning that we MUST give local producers ownership of the project. And with that partial ownership comes the freedom to promote our work in a way that will communicate effectively with the local population.

One step beyond the promotion is the content of the work itself. We must balance our own aesthetic priorities against the need to appeal to a local audience. What do Texans want to see? I am very clear that this question must be answered in a way that does not compromise the work. Then again there is the site-specific-ness of a project: What kind of piece do you make in a bull-running arena in Helena, Montana? It would be wise to acknowledge the cowboy energy that permeates a bull running arena.

When a producer brings you in for the first time, the visit is surrounded by that first date kind of excitement. After the first date comes the Let’s see what else you can offer date. With our hub sites we are not on a first date basis any longer. Our current projects are in the 2nd or 3rd date stage. At this stage we must make an investment in a community.

During the making an investment stage the in-kind donations diminish or at least shift. Things that were gratis must now be paid for. We are discovering that the ASK must be different.

I am looking down the road and asking, what will this scenario look like after the 3rd date? That remains to be explored.

For now we are on our 2nd date and making sure we are doing some serious listening.


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